With Nellie, it's always high drama

Publish date:

That's how Rocky found out he was a bum or, as the suits might say today, right-sized out of Mighty Mick's Boxing gym. And that makes Warriors coach Don Nelson a candidate if not for Coach of the Year at least for Boss of the Year for the way he gave Crawford ample notice of his limited future with the NBA's Bay Area team. You might want to pack that cardboard box and vacate your cubicle yourself, Nellie recently told Crawford, before someone packs and vacates it for you.

"I've always been very open and honest with my players and I did tell him he probably would either opt out or we would move him next year,'' Nelson said last week, confirming to the San Francisco Chronicle what already had leaked out. "That's a fact, and I just don't see that that's going to work. I'm loaded in the backcourt. If I'm going to move [Stephen] Jackson into the backcourt now, I'm really overloaded.''

Nelson then threw out the hollow praise ("He's too good ... to be a 10- or 15-minute player'') that employees at all levels hear when they're being nudged out the door. The real issue is money, namely, the $19.4 million over the next two seasons that Crawford can lock in this summer by invoking the player option in his contract. The Warriors would prefer not be on the hook for that at all, rather than have to shop Crawford to one of the other 29 teams as a devalued, overpriced asset. So Nelson encouraged Crawford to pursue his career elsewhere at a destination of his choice (and at a salary surely driven down by market forces) or risk having his fate determined for him.

Who among us wouldn't appreciate that sort of open and honest communication with our supervisors?

Who among us wouldn't also instruct our agent to lock in the $19 mil the first minute of the first day he can, give the boss a smile and a wave and say, "Nellie, take your best shot?''

That's life with the NBA's reigning drama king. Nelson is to the league's head coaches what Ron Artest, Gilbert Arenas and Stephon Marbury are to players, what his old buddy Mark Cuban occasionally has been, and what Phoenix's Robert Sarver seems to aspire to, among owners. It's not so much high maintenance as high anxiety, a constant turning-over of good and bad, happy and sad, sweet and sour.

In Nellie's world, no stone goes unturned, no boat floats unrocked and well enough never, ever is left alone. What for Newton was his Third Law -- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction -- for Nelson is his first. His positives pack negatives. His teams' potential so frequently brings disappointment.

The duality of Nellie is everywhere. He is an NBA lifer, after all, who dates to Bill Russell, Sam Jones and Red Auerbach, relying on players some of whose parents weren't yet born when Nelson broke into the league with the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962. He has won more games (1,304) than any other coach except Lenny Wilkens (1,332) but also is fast approaching 1,000 defeats (997) to join Wilkens, Bill Fitch and Dick Motta.

He has won three Coach of the Year awards -- more than Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan combined -- but never has steered a team to the NBA Finals. He got himself dumped by the Knicks in the midst of a debut season (34-25 in 1995-96) that would earn many coaches contract extensions. He shifted form defensive-minded in Milwaukee to let-it-fly in Dallas and Golden State as dramatically, but in reverse, as Pat Riley went from Showtime in L.A. to maul ball in New York, and has never looked back. Last season, Golden State ranked first in the NBA in points scored (111.0), dead last in points allowed (108.8). The Warriors got better and worse all at once, going from 42-40 in 2006-07 to 48-34, while going from the playoffs' second round to missing the postseason entirely.

This season, they are 10th in home attendance (18,889), which means they're a good show, even when giving up 124 points per game (including 154 vs. Phoenix) on their recent four-game homestand. But the Warriors are tied for 23rd in success with a mere 24 victories. That means they are on pace to win 29 games and sit down again after 82.

After taking teams to the playoffs 10 times in his first 12 coaching seasons, he will miss for the 10th time in his past 18 tries. Nelson's record of discovering and/or developing unheralded players -- from Latrell Sprewell and Matt Barnes to Kelenna Azubuike and Anthony Morrow -- is intact, but then so is his history of flaming out with key guys, from Chris Webber and Al Harrington to squabbles this season with rookie Anthony Randolph, Crawford and Monta Ellis.

I go back to Nellie's Milwaukee days, where I learned as much about basketball and the league in a few seasons around him as I had learned about people, human nature and the cosmos in a year covering Al McGuire. As the Bucks coach, Nelson always was cantankerous and crafty. When he wasn't wearing fish ties in an early tweak of NBA dress codes for coaches, he was sticking adhesive tape in big X's on the sides of his black athletic shoes, a counter to league directives against coaches sporting corporate logos on the sideline, however comfortable the footwear. If he wasn't designating Paul Pressey as his "point forward,'' he was instructing Alton Lister and Paul Mokeski, big men of limited offensive élan, to link arms and loiter over on the wing, his way of exploiting the illegal-defense rules of the time while clearing space for Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson or Ricky Pierce.

Nelson was creative and he loved tension, long before business gurus combined those elements for big consulting fees. When most coaches were chalking X's and O's on the board, he was stenciling L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E on knuckles, as far as some players were concerned, sometimes praising, sometimes cajoling and sometimes crawling inside their heads, as the case required. Always motivating. Always interesting. Not always winning.

"Coach is a genius,'' Crawford told longtime Bay Area sportswriter Lowell Cohn when asked about Nelson's leave-or-get-traded ultimatum. "I can't really question whatever's going on in his mind. ... I really have enjoyed being here. I can tell you that from the bottom of my heart. I love playing here. I think they wanted me because they traded for me. I want to finish out the year strong but I really enjoyed being here.''

At that point, Crawford was asked if Nelson's "genius'' might be beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

"Yeah,'' he said. "You hit it on [the] head. I can't get inside his head. He usually sees things before I do. I told him when I first got here he would call plays and he would know they were going to be open before any of the players knew. I told him I'll steal some of his stuff when I start coaching. I'm not going to question the coach.''

So which is it: Genius? Mad genius? Or just mad sometimes, as in plain loco?